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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

SEPTEMBER 17, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 37

Between Faith and Fund-Raising
A controversial temple provokes soul-searching in Thailand

An estimated 100,000 followers pray at the massive Dhammakaya Temple outside Bangkok Yvan Cohen for Asiaweek
Never has a monk been under so glaring a spotlight. Blinking as the flash of cameras hit his eyes, Abbot Dhammachayo ran a gauntlet of photographers and TV reporters last month to give himself up to police. Thousands of the Buddhist monk's followers had erected barricades around his vast Dhammakaya Temple outside Bangkok. After a two-day stand-off, Dhammachayo agreed to answer questions about alleged fraud, embezzlement and corruption charges against him. The abbot, who paid bail of $54,000, now awaits word on whether he will be indicted. The police say they will present their findings to prosecutors any day now.

A criminal or a visionary? The press has been reveling in sordid tales of Dhammachayo's alleged misappropriation of 600 hectares of donated land and his supposed love affairs with female followers. The 55-year-old abbot denies all the charges. He is backed by hundreds of thousands of mostly middle-class and educated devotees who are convinced that Dhammachayo is helping them on the path to inner peace and a sense of community sadly lacking in their busy lives. "Why do they attack the abbot?" asks a tearful woman worshipper. "He has done nothing wrong. Please report truthfully what they are doing to our abbot."

'I will never be disrobed' - Abbot Dhammachayo answers his critics

The controversy speaks volumes about the state of Thai Buddhism, the religion followed by 90% of the country's population. Outspoken Buddhist scholar and social critic Sulak Sivaraksa calls for reforms of the Sangha Council, the monks' governing body, which he says should have never allowed the situation to come to this pass. "Buddhism has become mere form," he complains. "Buddhism for Thais nowadays has become a kind of superstition." He criticizes Dhammakaya Temple for promoting greed "through its emphasis on merit and promises of wealth." In his weekly sermons, Dhammachayo continues to promise a prosperous life for those who give generously to the temple.

Not that Thailand's 30,000 other temples do not accept donations. Fortune-telling and the dispensing of lucky numbers and amulets - for a fee - are common. Dhammakaya Temple differs from them in its teachings. Dhammachayo "interprets Theravada Buddhism in a way we cannot accept, in which there is a material self at Nirvana [paradise], rather than a non-self," says Tavivat Puntarigvivat, a lecturer at Mahidol University. Critics also worry that, in making meditation more accessible to the masses, the abbot has simplified it to the point that it no longer includes complicated Buddhist dhamma, or teachings.

The abbot's unabashed calls for millions of baht in donations, even during the depth of the economic crisis, have not won him many friends among traditionalists. A few families virtually bankrupted themselves after a husband or wife handed over life savings. The temple's fund-raising techniques are sophisticated. Stands in the hangar-like prayer hall sell amulets, mini-crystal balls, books and tapes. Devotees are encouraged to buy small statues of the Buddha for placement in the temple's chedi (stupa) for $540. Monks preach that the generous will get their money back ten-fold - 10,000 baht could beget 100,000 baht.

Dhammachayo says the money does not go into his pockets but is spent on the temple. The facility stands in stark contrast to others not only in size but also in amenities. The buildings and grounds are neat and clean. No ragged dogs run around. Worshippers are served a free lunch. When the 316-hectare Dhammakaya complex is completed in February, it will be the world's largest Buddhist temple. The abbot envisions mass meditation sessions that would harness the spiritual concentration of 1 million people to fight Mara, the ruler of the evil universe.

Such visions have some critics crying "cult." Dhammachayo denies it. His supporters, many of them influential members of the community, counter that the abbot is the victim of the keepers of the status quo - traditional monks, academics, amulet sellers, businessmen, politicians and media barons. "It's the new against the old," says businessman Manit Rattanasuwan, an adviser to the abbot. "People think Buddhists should be very solemn. But this is the new millennium. We should adapt to the next hundred years." The temple, he says, provides the "church-like" community that Dhammachayo's followers desire.

Misgivings among the old guard have been bubbling for several years. The last straw was a widely publicized apparition at the temple last October. Devotees say they saw the sun turn into a crystal ball encompassing Dhammakaya founder Luang Phor Sodh during a mass gathering. The temple heavily advertised the claims in the newspapers. Then stories about Dhammachayo's alleged monastic and temporal shortcomings began to surface. The Sangha Council told Dhammachayo to correct his teachings on nirvana and return to traditional meditation techniques, among other things. The abbot says he has accepted the recommendations, though nothing much has changed in the way his temple operates.

That is why the Sangha is under fire too. To begin with, says Dhammachayo's opponents, the council should have cracked the whip much earlier (the temple was established in 1969). When it finally acted last year, the proceedings sometimes verged on the farcical. At one point, the body's Supreme Patriarch wrote a letter that said false teachings and embezzlement of temple property were grounds for automatic and immediate disrobement. The letter did not name Dhammachayo or his temple, but to the media, which got hold of the document, the accusation was clear enough. Dhammachayo says he never received the letter. The council, whose geriatric membership has been accused of incompetence, did not act on the Patriarch's opinion.

But changes are in the air. New legislation will give the Religious Affairs Department a stronger hand in dealing with the monastic community. Stiffer rules governing monks and donation solicitations are also in the works. "There is talk of reform within the council," says the Venerable Sripariyattimoli, assistant abbot of Chandaram Temple. The reformers face a hard slog. Says Western monk Santikaro Bhikkhu: "As long as leading monks own Mercedes-Benzes and have million-baht accounts, as long as selling amulets and lottery numbers is common, as long as merit-making is marketed for the sake of getting rich, and as long as monastic titles and positions can be purchased, Thai society will be corrupted by the get-rich-quick mentality." How the Dhammachayo case is resolved will determine the course of Thai Buddhism in the 21st century.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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